New York festival growing up

At 11 years old, it’s time to think about settling down.

Among the accomplishments nudging the New York Intl. Fringe Festival toward adulthood in its 11th year are upcoming Off Broadway runs of “Walmartopia” and “Silence! The Musical”; a celebrity-studded commercial production in 2005 of Peanuts satire “Dog Sees God”; and, of course, the Broadway transfer of 1999 Tony winner “Urinetown,” which provided the fest with its first major boost in credibility.

And with this year’s Fringe, running Aug. 10-26, a lot of people will be watching to see the next big thing to come out of the popular summer event. So why, after so long, is the annual fest still determined to hang on to its scrappy upstart mentality of open submissions and a chewing-gum-and-baling-wire aesthetic?

Not because the issue of change has never come up, according to producing artistic director Elena Holy.

“There were some tenuous times when what really makes the festival special almost slipped from our grasp,” Holy admits. “But I didn’t want it to be a really inexpensive backers audition. Why would someone work so hard for free to make that process happen? This is way too much work not to be fun.”

The process to which Holy refers is the annual selection of around 200 shows (this year, it’s 188) from a volume of more than 800 submissions — about what a good-sized institutional theater can expect to receive in a given season.

The thing about the Fringe is that it isn’t an institutional theater — it’s a group of 1,200 volunteers and 70 staffers, only two of whom (Holy and an assistant) are full time. Holy’s perspective on the process is upbeat, but it clearly isn’t an effortless enterprise. “It’s like building a city every year,” she says.

If the Fringe is a city, then, in accordance with its charter, the buildings are all different colors.

Some of the unique entries in this year’s lineup include the Los Angeles-based See You Next Tuesday Company’s musical about a musical about Charles Bukowski, appropriately titled “Bukowsical!”; and “An Air Balloon Across Antarctica.”

The latter show is set in a hot-air balloon at sunrise and Manhattan’s Invisible Company, and Irish playwright Darragh Martin gave the show a great sendoff by performing a preview in a hot-air balloon.

“We were tethered,” Martin says. “We were at a hundred feet, which is actually kind of high. The actors were scared, but I said, ‘Oh, you’ll be fine, you’ll be fine,’ and they were fine, because they were in character. But I was terrified.”

The preview also doubled as a photo op, but curious onlookers were allowed to watch, with Martin admitting, “the audience was quite small.”

The same cannot be said of the audience for the Fringe’s regularly scheduled programming, much of which, despite nonpreferential treatment (“Nobody walks into our theater ahead of our audience,” Holy says firmly), still holds fascination for commercial producers.

In 2006, the fest sold 75,000 tickets for 217 shows, banking $1,125,000, compared with 2005, when 65,000 tickets were sold for 180 productions.

The shows to keep an eye on this year include TheaterLoop’s “Williamsburg: The Musical,” a catchily scored send-up of the trendy Brooklyn ‘hood; AIDS drama “Chaser” (which is already beginning to sell out its performances); and “Hillary Agonistes,” a play starring Priscilla Barnes of “Three’s Company.”

The West Coast contingent is strong. Besides “Hillary Agonistes” and “Bukowsical!” there’s also “Catch the Fish,” directed by sometime Off Broadway helmer Kristin Hanggi. The company’s bicoastal nature (Hanggi is L.A.-based, while her cast comes from film and television) is informed also by California-based playwright Jonathan Caren, who workshopped “Catch the Fish” at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut.

The Fringe has always been a spiderweb of people who know each other — Holy recalls a regular audience member who ran into the Fringe’s main office (dubbed “Fringe Central”) in 1999 shouting, “Oh, my God! Our ‘Urinetown’ is transferring!”

It’s that sort of loyalty that has enabled the fest to build and maintain an impressive network of in-kind donations and individual donors. New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts are the only two government sponsors listed on the program, and corporate sponsorship is sparse. But the next growth steps for the festival require significant capital.

With the stock market climbing steadily, Holy hopes more private money will be available to the arts in the coming year. As the next big goal for the Fringe, she wants to see the fest find a source of income that will enable it to expand by paying its theaters a more competitive rental rate (20 venues are involved this year), and to fund full-time employment for more staffers.

“To be honest, though, I don’t know how that’s going to happen unless we get other money from the city,” she says. “People do come to the Fringe to say they saw it first, so the question for us is, ‘How do we carry that scrappy nature and that goodwill through the rest of the year?’ “

And that seems to be the quintessential FringeNYC choice: Decide to expand, and the money will come from somewhere. If it sounds preposterous, consider that it’s been working for 11 years and counting.

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